Terry Venables’ task, in his first few weeks as Leeds United manager, was trying to make Leeds United make sense.
He was taking over a team that finished 5th but had sacked its popular manager. The chairman, Peter Ridsdale, had outlined a summer clearout of players, but none of those players had cleared out and Rio Ferdinand, the defender Venables planned to build a team around, was sold instead.
At the back, he had Jonathan Woodgate, Lucas Radebe and Dominic Matteo. Up front he could choose from Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Robbie Fowler, Robbie Keane, Michael Bridges and Harry Kewell. Kewell had often been used as a left-winger but he hadn’t been happy with that for a long time, and besides, there was no right-winger in the squad for balance.
His predecessor, David O’Leary, had built this team, but while threatening legal action against the club for firing him, he was picking a Premier League eleven for the Sunday People that included none of his former charges except Ferdinand. Woodgate, Matteo and Fowler made his bench, but in every position, he saw better players at other clubs.
One thing working in Venables’ favour was the fixture computer. First Division champions Manchester City had been beaten 3-0 on the opening day at Elland Road, and next was a visit to the runners up, West Bromwich Albion, at The Hawthorns. Gary Megson’s Premiership reinforcements were few: their biggest signing was £2m Sean Gregan, dismissed earlier in his career as a floppy-haired lower league poseur, now arriving in the top division from Preston to bolster the Baggies midfield.
Against Leeds Gregan had three opponents: Eirik Bakke, Lee Bowyer, and new signing Nick Barmby. Venables’ solution for his imbalanced squad was to use as many strikers as possible, starting with Viduka and Smith with Kewell free to roam; if it was intended to keep the peace, nobody told Robbie Keane, who declared that if he didn’t get more time on the pitch he’d be off.
For most of the first half Venables was casting his eyes across the middle of the pitch, sucking his teeth unhappily. He’d gone for mobility, leaving defensive midfielder Olivier Dacourt on the bench, but while his chosen three could get up and down the pitch quickly enough, side to side was a different matter. West Brom had three centre-backs keeping Leeds’ forwards quiet, meaning their full-backs could get down the sides of Leeds and attack Danny Mills and Ian Harte. Andy Johnson and Jason Roberts were given golden chances, but neither could score.
But Leeds had the self assurance that comes with quality players. They were maybe too confident about their first good chance, less than ten minutes from half-time, when Kewell back-heeled Barmby’s pass square to Bowyer and he tried to lob in from 25 yards. But two minutes later, when West Brom inadvertently cleared their own corner, Viduka made the counter attack pay, holding off defenders as he almost dragged the ball over halfway, then sending Mills bombing down the right into West Brom’s sparse half. His low cross gave Kewell a simple near post finish to open the scoring. The lead gave Leeds the comfort they needed, and Barmby and Kewell got more involved, the latter flicking the ball over Gregan and trying a long range shot before half-time.
Seven minutes into the second half Bowyer declared the game all but done. He took the ball from Kewell at the end of his diagonal run, and passed to Smith in midfield, seeming happy to let the move continue ahead of him; Smith played Kewell back in on the edge of the penalty area. But Kewell backheeled across the front of the box, bringing Bowyer to life: he sprinted to the right of the D and hit the ball first time, fading across Russell Hoult into the goalkeeper’s far top corner, the most unexpected shot placed into the least expected spot. Bowyer ran into the arms of the Leeds fans at the front of the away end.
‘Bowyer for England!’ the Leeds fans chanted. Then, to the same tune, ‘Sign your contract!’ Finally, even louder, ‘Sign your contract for the lads!’
Had the summer clearout gone to plan, Bowyer would have been scoring this goal for Liverpool, but he’d backed out of a move at the last moment, halfway through his medical.
“I didn’t feel it was right for me to go there,” Bowyer had told The Guardian’s Nick Callow, on the eve of the game. “It was like I was running away from my problems.” He didn’t want to leave Leeds without winning something, he said, and when Venables was appointed, “I thought, let’s give it another go.”
But giving it another go didn’t mean signing a new contract, and if it didn’t work out, Bowyer would be leaving for much less than the £9m Liverpool had agreed to pay. His future, as it had for most of the previous two years, felt like a question that when answered would settle Leeds United’s fate. In the meantime all Venables could do was put him in midfield and hope for the kind of performances Bowyer always seemed to produce when his back was against the wall: and for this kind of goal.
Bowyer was involved in the third goal, too, seizing on Phil Gilchrist’s mistake and half-volleying a cross to Viduka. Alone in an empty penalty area, Viduka took a touch, put Hoult on his backside, dribbled to the left and slotted in. It was the kind of control Leeds had over the game since going ahead, but that they let slip at 3-0; in stoppage time, Ronnie Wallwork forced the ball through a crowd of defenders and it broke to Lee Marshall, who fired past Paul Robinson, then dashed to get the ball for a hopelessly optimistic fast restart.
The Baggies’ goal had been coming, and although Leeds topped the table with two wins and six goals, they couldn’t be truly satisfied with letting a promoted team have so much of the game against them. Individual quality had counted, as Gary Megson pointed out after the game. “We haven’t met too many teams where a midfielder who is twenty-odd yards out, facing the wrong way, is capable of bending the ball into the top corner,” he said.
That was Bowyer. “Lee’s an exceptional player,” said Venables, but he accepted that Bowyer was master of his own fate. “If he wants to leave at the end of the year I’d be very disappointed, but I’ve got no problem with that, as much as I would hate it to happen,” he said. “We just hope to create an environment that he enjoys and wants to be a part of.”
But then there was the bench: Nigel Martyn, Lucas Radebe, Gary Kelly, Olivier Dacourt, Robbie Keane. And the players who didn’t make it: Michael Bridges, Robbie Fowler, Seth Johnson, David Batty. Lee Bowyer always seemed most influential in times of personal adversity, and with his relationship with the club under strain, he’d scored the goal of the season. What would all the others do? ◉